REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
The prospect of a new stage musical about the Righteous Brothers is an enticing idea, and with the premiere of That Lovin’ Feelin’, James A. Zimmerman’s new production about the lives and careers of Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley, we ventured into the Valley to take in a performance. The show is being staged through January 24 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood. As with all of our “road trips,” there is a local Ventura County angle, in this case, Brenden MacDonald, a graduate of California Lutheran University’s drama program who also attended Moorpark College, where he studied under John Loprieno. MacDonald fares well in his Group Rep Theatre debut but the production suffers from obvious miscasting and an overall unsatisfactory book, which fails to effectively portray the lives and tumultuous partnership of Hatfield and Medley.
The show gets into trouble at the outset when the premise is established. It is 2003, and Bill Medley (Paul Cady) is being interviewed by a novice college journalism student (Sarah Karpeles) during a performance in a Nevada casino nightclub. Thus, the entire story is told from Medley’s perspective, although there is no indication as to whether what he his relating to her was the truth or merely his biased viewpoint. The story jockeys back and forth between flashbacks to the Righteous Brothers’ career and the 2003 interview, with Cady and Karpeles remaining on stage, their positions frozen while the flashbacks are acted out. This device proves to be not only cumbersome for the actors, who often have to remain motionless for five to ten minutes at a time throughout the show, but distracting for the audience. The impulse is to glance over at them every so often and one can see them fidget in their stillness; even a wiggle of a finger or a blink of an eye can be distracting and one fails to find a reason to even keep them on stage for each of the flashback scenes. Many alternatives can be achieved in this staging without hurting the story; they could be lit in silhouette or they could merely walk off stage after each scene, but director Jules Aaron somehow thought they needed to remain visible, despite having to stay interminably still through most of the production.
Aside from the flashback premise, the casting of the young Hatfield and Medley is highly problematic. Neither, in any way, resembles the character they are portraying. Although the six-foot-tall Bill Medley towered over the much shorter (at 5′ 7″) Hatfield, Morgan Lauff, who plays Medley in the show, is a few inches shorter than MacDonald, who resembles a young Nicolas Cage. The two actors’ build is not the only mismatch in their characters. It was the vocal blend of Medley’s robust baritone with Hatfield’s melodious tenor that resulted in the Righteous Brothers’ unique sound. Lauff and MacDonald’s voices are much closer together and do not have the range of Medley and Hatfield, and during the first half of the show, when the “Brothers” were still in their “blue-eyed soul” years of singing doo-wop, R&B, and blues, they sound more like the Everly Brothers with their close-pitched harmonies. When MacDonald sings Hatfield’s most notable solos, “Ebb Tide” and “Unchained Melody,” his voice goes into a screechy Frankie Valli falsetto rather than Hatfield’s silvery strong, soaring tenor. Similarly, while MacDonald has trouble getting into Hatfield’s high register, Lauff’s voice can’t reach the depths of Medley’s, and one can hear him straining at the low notes at the beginning of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
What this shows is that, despite their singing the exact same notes that the real duo sang, it was the quality of Medley and Hatfield’s voices that resulted in their unique sound, and in that regard, That Lovin’ Feelin’ misses the mark by a mile. (It’s ironic that when they perform their signature hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” at the end of the first act, Medley tells writers Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who are pitching the song to them: “It’s a great song for the Everly Brothers.”) The pair’s performance of the song at the end of Act I is actually the best sequence in the show, although if the casting had been better, it could have been a magical moment. Lauff and MacDonald are both talented singers; they just belong in different shows.
Other casting is similarly misguided, especially with regard to stature and look. The older Bill Medley is well played by Cady, although he, too, is too short and stocky to evoke the lanky Medley. Amanda Dawn Harrison, an ensemble member who portrays a variety of personages, comes on as a mid-60s Cher, then an eighteen-year-old background singer for Phil Spector, with a mid-70s hairstyle (Cher had bangs throughout her early years with Sonny Bono and didn’t have her parted hair style until much later). Spector, the enigmatic and eccentric producer of the Righteous Brothers’ biggest hit: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” is played by Patrick Burke, who is, like Lauff and MacDonald, also physically wrong for the part (Spector was, at five-foot-five, notoriously short). With a frizzy dark wig, dark glasses, and stony expression, Burke comes off more like Muammar Gaddafi than Spector.
One could make allowances for the look and sound of the characters if the script was effective, but, alas, it is not. Zimmerman’s dialog is often trite and the situations contrived, with character exposition delivered like a sledgehammer into sandstone. In the beginning, Medley speaks groan-worthy lines like “My favorite letters are ‘R’ and ‘B’,” and “R&B is like trying to take a trip to your soul.” Spector’s character appears to have been totally unresearched. Instead of the introspective, brilliant, soft-spoken iconoclast, Burke’s Spector is a cartoonish caricature of an off-the-rack pop producer from a 1950s biopic. In one scene, we see him imploring a disgruntled Hatfield to split from Medley and go off on his own: (“Leave the Righteous Brothers!” he cajoles. “We can have hit records!”) When Hollywood agent Jerry Perenchio, also played without any real knowledge into actual personality, meets Bobby and Bill, he exudes, “I want to sign you guys! I could take you to the moon!” And in a particularly painful scene between an alcohol-sodden Hatfield and his overbearing wife (Nicole Renee Chapman), MacDonald slurs, “Meet my new partner, Jack Daniels.” Much of the dialog includes similarly juvenile and hackneyed statements so I won’t bore you with any more.
The show is rife with sloppy details; three go-go girls wear the same ’60s outfits in three successive scenes, although by this time, the action has progressed into the ’70s and ’80s. Medley fans will note the total ignoring of Medley’s solo career after his first breakup with Hatfield in the late ’60s, which misses a great opportunity for Medley to sing the song “I Can’t Make It Alone,” with the ironic lyric: “I’ve tried and I know I can’t make it alone / It’s such a hard way to go / I just can’t make it alone / There’s something in my soul / That will always lead me back to you.” During this time, Medley’s creativity came alive as he produced and recorded this and two other memorable solos, the soulful “Brown Eyed Woman” and his masterpiece, the powerful gospel prayer “Peace Brother Peace,” which came on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. None of these songs is mentioned and Medley’s solo sojourn is only hinted at. The Righteous Brothers’ place in rock history is completely ignored; with the rise of psychedelia and the political unrest of the period, their mid-60s style quickly became outdated, but we see none of this inability to change with the times reflected in the simplistic story line.
At the end of the reporter’s interview with Medley, we learn of the sudden death of Hatfield of a heart attack (the fact that his death was triggered by an overdose of cocaine goes unmentioned). It’s a clumsy contrivance and like most of the dramatic moments in the musical, a hasty and artificial way to end the show.
In short, there are so many problems with That Lovin’ Feelin’ that it probably needs a complete overhaul and different vision to make the fascinating story of Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley come alive. One hopes that someone with a clearer knowledge of the history of pop music during the 1960s will give this worthy subject another try.
That Lovin’ Feelin’ plays at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood, through January 24. Due to SOLD OUT houses the play is extended through February 7th, Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm.
For ticket information, visit www.thegrouprep.com